How Bullies Use Triangulation as a Weapon in the Workplace

The way nurses treat each other runs the spectrum between supportive and nurturing to bullying and uncivil. Often, this “treatment” shows up in the way we communicate. When nurses are direct, honest and respectful (assertive communication style), they build relationships with each other and patients ultimately receive better care. But when nurses are indirect, dishonest, and disrespectful (passive-aggressive communication style), relationships are broken and patient care gets compromised.

A common method some bullies use is TRIANGULATION.

Sixteen years ago, I decided to step down from my role as a unit manager in a large urban hospital. The unit had a reputation of being toxic and I was ill equipped to handle the rampant bullying and incivility that happened on a daily basis. It was exhausting. I was also going through a divorce and was in graduate school at the same time. So, I transferred into a clinician role on a Neuro-surgical unit managed by a very dear friend. Although they say you should never work for your friend, I needed to be in an environment where I knew somebody cared about me.

After working there a few months, my friend (boss) called me into her office and said this:

When my employees complain to me about one of their coworkers, I ignore them. When I hear the same complaint a second time, I pay attention. If I hear it a third time, I have a conversation with that employee.

As she was saying this, I was listening intently.

After all, this was good stuff! Then she said, “Renee. I need to have a conversation with you.” “Me?” I said in shock. “Me? What have I done?” She then told me that over the past month or so, several nurses complained to her that when I worked night shift, I wasn’t taking my patients down to radiology for their AM CT Scan. “Yeah.” I said. “It’s an AM CT. That’s the daylight nurses’ responsibility.” “No.” she said. “It’s the night nurses’ responsibility to take all patients ordered a CT in AM down before they leave their shift.”

At first I was mortified. I was mortified that I had been so careless and failed to complete my work causing more work for the day shift nurses. Taking a patient down for a CT scan meant getting them on a stretcher, hooking them up to a monitor, and accompanying them for the test. It was what we called a “road trip” as you never knew how long you’d be gone. Ugh.

Then, after I got over my initial shock and embarrassment, I got angry and said, “Do you mean to tell me that these nurses complained to YOU about this but never had the courtesy of telling me?” Basically, when I would give report, they wouldn’t say anything to me, but as soon as I left for home, they went running to my friend, the boss to tattle on me.

Meet one of the most common disruptive, relationship destroying communication sins – TRIANGULATION.

What is triangulation?

Triangulation is a common passive-aggressive communication technique some people resort to intentionally or unintentionally.

Let’s say I have an issue with you… but instead of telling you, I tell somebody else. I’m able to communicate the issue in a way that allows me to vent, but also allows me to avoid any conflict.  Triangulation is a manipulative tactic involving the complainer, a 2nd and a 3rd party. The complainer chooses NOT to confront the 2nd party directly but complains to the 3rd party.

Sometimes triangulation is unintentional, which is more passive on the spectrum. Unintentional triangulation can show up as gossip, venting, or complaining. The complainer might not be trying to harm the other person, but may lack insight, skills, or awareness.

And then there’s intentional triangulation, which is definitely passive-aggressive but more aggressive on the spectrum.

Intentional triangulation is a weapon that bullies use against their targets. This weapon shows up as rumor mongering, vicious gossip, lying to get someone in trouble, scapegoating, and backstabbing. The target might not be aware the bully is spreading false rumors or deliberately sabotaging because triangulation usually happens in secret. Unless the 3rd party speaks up, intentional triangulation can go on for years.

Why do we triangulate?

There are many reasons why someone uses triangulation in the workplace.

Here are just a few common reasons:

  • We’re not comfortable confronting people directly so we confront indirectly
  • We don’t want to hurt feelings so instead of talking to them, we talk about them
  • Sometimes triangulation is used maliciously as a way to ruin someone’s reputation or get them in trouble

Whatever the reason, triangulation is a team and relationship destroyer!

How to avoid the triangulation trap

1. Speak straight

We can all succumb to the lure of triangulation. Why? Because it’s way more comfortable telling someone else when we’ve been wronged than to tell the person. Catch yourself going down that path and just stop it. Think – if the situation were reversed, would you want this person complaining to someone else or coming to you directly?

Instead, speak straight; meaning, use the assertive communication style (honest and respectful). If my coworkers would have spoken straight, we could have avoided the 2 months worth of complaining and broken trust.

2. Avoid becoming the 3rd party

When someone complains or talks trash about another coworker, stop them respectfully by saying, “Whoa. You seem upset. Have you shared this with him?” Or, “If the situation were reversed, would you want him to tell me about it or go directly to you?”

If you suspect the complainer is spreading false rumors, say this, “How do I know this is true?” If you’re the manager, say this, “How does this affect your work/patients/the team, etc.?”

3. Develop assertive communication skills

As I mentioned, triangulation is a passive-aggressive way of communicating with each other. It’s both dishonest and disrespectful and should never show up in a professional environment. Although this may be your natural communication style, the ONLY style we should all be using in healthcare is the ASSERTIVE communication style – honest and respectful.

Developing assertive communication is a skill that can be learned. Spend the time to learn it!!

Nobody ever told me that the AM CT scan was my responsibility. If they had, they wouldn’t have wasted the time and energy by complaining; time and energy that could have been used to care for patients and strengthen relationships. Instead, they chose to triangulate – something that I want you to avoid.

If you find yourself about to triangulate, pause and consider a different approach. You’ll be glad you did!

To find out how you can develop assertive communication skills in your employees, contact the team at the Healthy Workforce Institute.

Be kind. Take care. Stay connected.

Helping you cultivate a healthy happy workforce,

About Renee Thompson

Dr. Renee Thompson is a keynote speaker, author and professional development/anti-bullying thought leader. Renee spends the majority of her time helping healthcare and academic organizations address and eliminate bullying behavior. To find out how you can bring Renee to YOUR organization or nursing event, visit www.healthyworkforceinstitute.com

There are 8 comments on this post
  • Renee Thompson
    Tom Myslik
    Jul 14, 2019 Reply

    It’s not just workplace of course. My son’ father-in-law pulls it on me. He some slight I pulled on him and then tells his daughter who tells my son who chastises me. She does the same thing in reverse order. They seem to be jealous of me and use my own son against me. I don’t buy the tactics and confront him or her directly which leads to the same tactics from them. Vicious cycle and I’d just blow them off except I don’t want to be estranged from my son. He is a great guy and gets caught in the middle by not trying to makes waves. I get it and feel very sorry for him but I can’t fall to their manipulation. Not my style.

    Oh wait. By posting this I’m triangulating too aren’t I? My bad. Please disregard this pist

    • Renee Thompson
      Renee Thompson
      Jul 15, 2019 Reply

      Hi Tom. You're absolutely right!! Triangulation happens outside of the workplace - I think even more among families. There is a difference between triangulation and perhaps sharing a situation with someone, about someone, and asking for advice or input. That's healthy. I'm so sorry you're dealing with this, especially because as a a parent, I know how the stakes are higher when it's your kids. Keep this in mind...are you trying to build a relationship with them (all of them) or trying to win an argument (prove you're right)? Build - always go into every conversation with the intent to build :-)

  • Renee Thompson
    Tawnia iwasinski
    Aug 08, 2018 Reply

    I agree to an extent. These nurses were going to their supervisor rather than risking a confrontation. The person who is doing something “wrong” may not see it as such and then an arguement or animosity develops. I believe there is a chain to follow for most situations and allowing a manager or supervisor address problems is a proper way to handle a lot of issues. If not handled properly this can make for a volatile workplace.

    • Renee Thompson
      Renee Thompson
      Aug 08, 2018 Reply

      Absolutely!! Sometimes we all need to "vent" to someone else to help us clarify the situation. Triangulation is different. And, you are so right about going to the manager first because you don't know HOW to directly address an issue. The leader should then coach their employees to address the situation and if necessary, intervene on their behalf.
      Great points!

  • Renee Thompson
    Lynn Gresko
    Aug 07, 2018 Reply

    Thank you for a great article. I'm a school nurse and this info will be very useful on my return to school in 2 weeks.

    • Renee Thompson
      Renee Thompson
      Aug 08, 2018 Reply

      So glad you enjoyed Lynn. It's so important that we heighten awareness of how easily triangulation can happen.And then DO something about it. Best wishes as you return to school!

  • Renee Thompson
    Reezena Malaska
    Aug 01, 2018 Reply

    Love this article Dr. Renee. I can relate only too well.

    • Renee Thompson
      Renee Thompson
      Aug 01, 2018 Reply

      You're welcome Reezena!!!! I'm sorry you can relate but I'm hoping to change that!

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